In his book The Plague, Albert Camus writes about a town that was engulfed by the plague, killing scores of people. On the last page of the book, the main character, Dr. Rieux, is listening to the surviving inhabitants of the town celebrate the end of the plague: “As he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew that those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”
America has a race problem, and it has always had a race problem. Like Dr. Rieux, we know that prejudice and discrimination, in the same way as the plague bacillus, never really die. The discrimination bacillus can lie dormant for years, but it will eventually rouse up its rats again. At this time in history, the rhetoric of the president, the proliferation of guns, and the outrageous hate manifestos of the white supremacist movement are giving fuel to those who would perpetrate mass shootings in synagogues, churches, mosques, even in a Walmart in El Paso.
What does one do with a plague like racism that never goes away? How should we, as Quakers, respond to this plague of discrimination?
First, it is important to note that Quakers have been ahead of most when it comes to recognizing the evil of prejudice and discrimination. We have a testimony on equality and we have a testimony on peace, both of which are greatly needed today. Our history tells the story of working as abolitionists against slavery and for the civil rights of all persons. The Quaker Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The American Friends Service Committee has worked tirelessly to shut down the immigration detention center in Florida, a center that housed young Hispanic immigrants. They have succeeded. As I write, there are Quakers on our southern border working to help immigrants who are being held in cages and to reunite families who have been so cruelly separated. We can all work for justice. When we see an act of hate, we can take a stand and act against it.
Secondly, we can hold all victims as well as perpetrators of violence and discrimination in the Light. We can pray for persons to make the right choices for love and compassion as opposed to hate and violence. Non-violent resistance to the powerful forces of hate, along with prayer, are ways that we can keep the prejudice and discrimination bacillus in check.
Finally, we can no longer be passive about the gun culture. Our elected representatives need to hear from us about how we can curb the epidemic of gun violence. There is no justification for anyone to own a rapid-fire assault weapon, built to kill human beings as fast as a shooter can pull the trigger. The man in Dayton and the man in El Paso both used this type of weapon. Now is the time to work for a ban on these morally reprehensible weapons of war.
It is good to be reminded of the words of the Quaker John Woolman, a man whose tender heart and sensitive spirit have never been more needed than today. He wrote, “Our gracious creator cares and provides for all His creatures. His tender mercies are over all his works; and so far as his love influences our minds, so far we become interested in his workmanship, and feel a desire to take hold of every opportunity to lessen the distresses of the afflicted and increase the happiness of the creation. Here we have a prospect of one common interest, from which our own is inseparable, that to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of Universal Love becomes the business of our lives.”